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Political Advertising on Facebook: What the 2020 Candidate Campaign Spending Reveals


The 12 Democrats who qualified for Tuesday’s debate are trying to reach out certain voters with Facebook advertising.

Note: Facebook ad spend data from March 24th to October 5th | Sources: Bully Pulpit Interactive; Facebook

When it comes to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s Facebook ads, the chances are overwhelming that people who see them were born before 1975. For Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the opposite is true: people born in 1975 or later are more than twice as likely to see his Facebook ads than previous ones. A gender segregation is also clear: around half of Mr Sanders’ audience are men, while around two thirds of Mr Biden are women.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren more or less shares the difference between them. She has targeted a Facebook audience that better reflects the projected universe of likely Democratic primary voters in 2020: more women than men (though not as strong as Mr Biden), more likely to be older than younger (but again not as strong) . as Mr Biden).

In total, the 19 current Democratic presidential candidates have poured nearly $ 32 million into Facebook advertising this year – more money than they have previously spent on television advertising, a striking measure of the social network’s ever-growing influence in politics. The high spending on Facebook even came about when party officials raised alarm about the website’s role in American democracy.

Ms. Warren has been arguing with Facebook for the past few days about the company’s willingness to run fake ads. Even so, she has spent a lot of money and poured $ 172,000 into the site in the last seven days that records are available.

The advertising decisions that each campaign makes on one of the largest platforms on the internet offer an almost unprecedented glimpse into their political priorities and strategies, illuminate their key supporters, and give a glimpse into their potential coalitions. The spending patterns show not only who the campaigns are targeted at, but also where.

The 2020 race marks the first presidential campaign in which Facebook publicly publishes who is buying ads – and who they are targeting. This story is based on Facebook data compiled and analyzed by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a democratic consulting firm. Its database contains estimates of what gender and age group each candidate has targeted since March, but does not include any race or ethnicity that Facebook does not specifically allow campaigns to be used for targeted ads.

Because campaigns get so much real-time feedback from Facebook, they can accurately target their audience.

“You can prioritize the people who take the action you want them to do,” said Alex Kellner, a Democratic strategist at Bully Pulpit. “Facebook helps you to optimize the desired result.”

Apart from Mr. Sanders and Mr. Yang, the candidates are mostly aimed at older voters.

Note: Only includes issues where gender is indicated.

Among the top candidates, Mr. Sanders on Facebook is targeting a younger and more male audience. This reflects his support in polls, which consistently do best for young voters and better for men than women.

“There’s a reason they’re called ‘Bernie Bros’,” said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster who previously advised Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign. “None of the fact that it targets younger men surprises me.”

One of the most noticeable findings from Facebook ad data is how little Mr Biden is spending to reach out to the youngest generation of voters. Less than half of 1 percent of Mr. Biden’s Facebook ads were targeted at users born in 1995 or later. That was the smallest percentage – and the smallest dollar amount – that any of the 11 other candidates who will be on the stage on Tuesday spent on any age segment.

Mr Biden spent less than $ 12,000 through early October targeting voters under 25. Mr Sanders spent nearly half a million dollars on the same age group, according to Bully Pulpit.

Emily Williams, a Democratic digital strategist who worked on Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, said Biden’s lack of spending on young voters was a cause for concern. “It tells me that they are having trouble getting through with younger voters,” she said, “and I hope that doesn’t mean they gave up on younger voters.”

Mr Biden’s Bread and Butter was Older Women: Fifty-five percent of his total Facebook advertising budget went to women 45+, including some ads from Medicare last month.

The majority of the target audience for this Biden ad on Medicare were women 65 and over.

Source: Facebook

It makes sense that the demographics targeted by the top contenders look very similar to their existing supporters, digital strategists said, as much of the advertising to date is looking for new donors. The best choice of a campaign is to deliver ads to its base.

Still, the degree to which Facebook advertising matches polls can be almost scary.

In a Quinnipiac poll last week, Mr Biden led the field by a wide margin among voters 65 years or older – the same segment he leads in Facebook ad spend. In the same survey, Mr Sanders dominated 18- to 34-year-olds – with Mr Sanders dominating the spending. Ms. Warren ranked second on the two extreme ends of the age spectrum on the poll, while leading voters between 35 and 65 years of age.

On Facebook, Ms. Warren’s share for each age segment was between that of Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden.

Her spending distribution was closely tied to that of Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, whose expenses were slightly younger and more masculine. Billionaire Tom Steyer, who entered the race in July and quickly surpassed all of his rivals, had ages and genders similar to those of Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren.

The “A New Generation of Leadership” ad from Mr Buttigieg’s campaign is aimed at older women.

Source: Facebook

Much of Mr Buttigieg’s Facebook spending went to people aged 45 and over, despite the fact that he was a candidate for a “new generation,” a phrase that can be found in some of his advertisements. (Mr Buttigieg wrote in his autobiography that when he first ran for mayor, when he was 29, older voters were more likely to rate his youth as positive.)

The advertising expenditures of the candidates are predominantly female.

Almost all candidates in Tuesday’s debate advertise on Facebook in front of a mostly female audience. But the campaign that is most one-sidedly aimed at women on Facebook is not one of the four female candidates in the debate, but Julián Castro, the former federal housing minister. Jennifer Fiore, a senior advisor to Mr. Castro, was not surprised by this fact.

She noted that Mr. Castro’s campaign manager and other top strategists are women and that Mr. Castro made his mom a big part of his pitch and featured her in video ads on Facebook earlier this year. (The campaign also recently ran Facebook ads with pictures of puppies touting that Mr. Castro would “make animal abuse a federal crime.”)

An ad about Julian Castro’s pet euthanasia policy was primarily shown to women.

Source: Facebook

“We target women because women respond to them,” said Ms. Fiore.

This self-reinforcing truism is a feature of the entire platform: Operators said Facebook’s formulas encourage advertisers to double the demographics that are already clicking, driving older-based candidates to target an increasingly older audience, and vice versa.

For example, Andrew Yang, the former tech manager, appeals to a predominantly male and young audience. (Hawaiian rep Tulsi Gabbard is a bit more manly, but she spends a fraction of what Mr. Yang is.)

A cartoon of Andrew Yang performing the raft, a dance move popular in the Fortnite video game. The ad is aimed at a younger male audience.

Source: Facebook

An advertisement describing Ms. Gabbard’s foreign policy while standing in front of an American flag was shown disproportionately to men.

Source: Facebook

“The Facebook algorithm is optimized for people who take action,” said Eric Ming, paid media director for the Yang campaign, explaining that Mr. Yang’s demographics are younger and more masculine because it resonates with his message. The advertisements also often contain cartoon character versions of the candidate.

Digital strategists describe three phases of online advertising in campaigns. The first is to attract new donors and supporters. The second is to convince undecided voters. The third is to get people to vote.

Most of the campaigns focused on the first phase. But some have started to invest in persuasion – and it shows in their geographical breakdown.

In the first four electoral states, Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Steyer dominate.

Note: dates from September 1st to October 5th. | Source: Bully Pulpit Interactive

For California Senator Kamala Harris, the most populous states for spring advertising were California, New York, Texas, and Florida. But in July she switched. Its largest state for Facebook advertising in each of the past three months has been Iowa, a shift in spending priorities long before it publicly announced its “pivot” to focus on that state’s leading primaries.

In September, South Carolina jumped up to become one of its top spending states for the first time. That month she spent $ 52,000 there on Facebook, followed by Mr. Steyer.

Next to Mr. Steyer and his practically unlimited budget, Mr. Buttigieg was the country’s largest donor on Facebook. Mr Buttigieg’s dominance is particularly evident in the opening states of Iowa and New Hampshire. In September, Mr. Buttigieg was by far the largest donor in both states. In fact, he was spending more than all of his rivals except Mr. Steyer combined.

While the Democrats have focused on the critical primaries, President Trump has flooded Facebook with messages targeting the general election. Last month, he spent more than $ 700,000 on Facebook ads in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida alone – four swing states he barely wore in 2016.

“Danger, Danger, Danger!” said Betsy Hoover, who was director of digital organizing for Mr Obama’s re-election campaign and is not targeted in the 2020 primary.

Ms. Hoover said she was concerned that the Democrats are “focusing on the coasts or early states – which generally doesn’t matter” as Mr. Trump delivers his message to key voters.

“We have a primary strategy and Trump has a general electoral strategy,” she said, “and that’s terrifying.”


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